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British Council Contractors: Afghanistan

Volume 823: debated on Monday 27 June 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 23 June.

“Last August, when the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating so rapidly, the UK Government worked at great speed to evacuate more than 15,000 people from the country within a fortnight. This was the biggest mission of its kind in generations, and the second largest evacuation carried out by any country. We are right to be proud of what our British forces and others achieved at that time. Those evacuated included British nationals and their families and about 500 particularly vulnerable Afghans, including some British Council contractors, journalists, human rights defenders, campaigners for women’s rights, judges, and many others. All former British Council employees who wished to resettle have arrived in the UK, with their family members.

The British Council played an important role in Afghanistan in working to support the UK mission there and to promote our values. It is right that the Government do the right thing for British Council employees and contractors, and that includes resettling eligible contractors if they are at risk. Therefore, in January this year the then Minister for Afghan Resettlement, my honourable friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle, Victoria Atkins, announced the launch of a new Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which will resettle up to 20,000 eligible people over the coming years. There is no application process for the scheme, but people can express an interest in resettlement.

Eligible individuals will be referred for resettlement via three referral ‘pathways’. Under pathway 3, we are committed to considering eligible at-risk British Council and GardaWorld contractors as well as Chevening alumni. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will refer up to 1,500 people from Afghanistan and the region to the Home Office for resettlement, including eligible family members. On 20 June the FCDO opened an online system, whereby eligible individuals can express their interest in resettlement.”

My Lords, the situation in Afghanistan is obviously dire: there are humanitarian and human rights crises. In the Commons last Thursday, we heard that just under 200 British Council contractors are still trapped in Afghanistan. All of them are in fear of their lives. We know their names but not their locations. Bob Blackman asked the Minister, Vicky Ford, if the applications for those people to come out of Afghanistan to the UK can be “lodged by other people” on their behalf. As he rightly pointed out,

“people will have to spend time online and getting to places that will be unsafe for them to travel to.”—[Official Report, Commons, 23/6/22; col. 966.]

In response, Vicky Ford said that she would examine whether “third parties” can put in applications. Can the Minister advise the House on the progress on this because speed is absolutely of the essence, lives are at risk and we owe a duty of care to these people who worked on our behalf?

My Lords, first, I put on record my sincere thanks to the noble Lord for his constructive engagement on this important issue both during Operation Pitting and subsequently. He will be fully aware of my direct engagement on this. We welcome the opening of this particular pathway.

The noble Lord makes a valid point about accessibility. We are working directly with the three key partners that we announced in the three cohorts; the British Council is primary among them. The important thing is to get these people registered on the portal and here. The difficulties within Afghanistan are well known to us; we are of course working with key partners, such as the British Council, to ensure that we identify and look for safe passage for those of whom we are aware and whose details we have—although their locations may be sensitive—to leave Afghanistan and move onwards towards the United Kingdom. I cannot delve into more detail than that but I can reassure the noble Lord that we are working directly with the organisations we have identified and the British Council is a priority among them.

My Lords, we owe these contractors gratitude and safety because they kept British officials safe, in the British Council and elsewhere. I understand that the pathway to which the Minister referred is temporary—it opened today—and the expressions of interest can be made only in a two-month period. Why is it temporary and why will it not be an ongoing rolling programme given many of the complexities, only one of which was rightly raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins? What will the turnaround time be between expressing an interest in using this pathway and receiving a final decision about accessing resettlement? Who is in charge of making the final decision?

I ask because, last week, my honourable friend Munira Wilson asked the Prime Minister about a case with a constituency interest. It concerns a former member of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan and a former government Minister who applied to be part of the ARAP scheme in October last year, received a ticket in February but has heard nothing since. The Prime Minister asked the Home Secretary to follow up; the noble Lord, Lord Harrington, was deemed to be the Minister responsible. I saw him in the Chamber earlier but he is obviously not answering this Question, although we are grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, is. Who is in charge and what will the turnaround time be?

My Lords, I will certainly follow up with my noble friend Lord Harrington. I fully accept that there are undoubtedly cases; I am aware of several and am grateful to the noble Lord for identifying one. Let us see how quickly we can move through some of them. On the ARAP case he identified, that scheme remains open and will be open—of course, it is being administered directly by the MoD—but I will certainly follow up with my noble friend Lord Harrington. I am sure that one of us will be able to provide the noble Lord with an answer.

On contractors, the noble Lord is right that there is a time-limited window during which these expressions of interest can be taken forward. The window for this particular pathway will close because, on pathway 3, there is a limit for year 1 of settlement. Once we reach this, eligibility criteria will be applied on an objective basis. As I alluded to in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we are working directly with the three cohorts: the Chevening cohort—this is directly under the FCDO—GardaWorld and the British Council. We are doing so to identify, where we can, any information that we need.

Of course, when that window closes, another announcement will be made towards the end of this year for the following year’s scheme, when we will be able to identify an additional cohort based on the numbers we have identified. However, as my honourable friend Vicky Ford said, the number for this year is set at 1,500. Because of commitments that we have already made, priority will be given to those who are covered through the Chevening scholarships; those who are involved and engaged through GardaWorld; and, of course, those who were working with the British Council as contractors.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for answering this question. Can he say whether he has any further information on the extent to which the Taliban in Afghanistan, particularly around Kabul, are still pursuing those linked to the British administration—and indeed many others who are linked to foreign organisations? As far as I can tell from the media, that is not a huge problem at the moment but I may be entirely wrong.

I thank the noble Baroness for her work in this area. The picture is different across Afghanistan. There are about eight or nine provinces where girls are being allowed to go to school and women are being allowed to work. However, there are certain places where the local commanders may be operating in a way that does not reflect the openness that we wish to see—even in a limited way—and that is being demonstrated in those eight or nine provinces.

On the specific issues around Kabul, I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that our current focus is on supporting the direct victims of the tragic earthquake that took place in Afghanistan—and we are doing exactly that. However, the situation with some of the other priority issues, including girls’ education and the freedom of women to go out to work, are certainly among our priorities. As all noble Lords know, the situation is very difficult: we do not have a presence on the ground yet, but we are engaging with the Taliban at an official level. Have we seen co-operation? The short answer is yes. Indeed, I pay tribute to the officials in the FCDO who recently worked specifically, as noble Lords will be aware, on the release of British detainees. That was down to the fact that we worked in a very co-ordinated fashion and to the great courage and commitment of officials in the FCDO, who ensured the release of those detainees.

My Lords, if I understand this correctly, these people are contractors for the British Council, and employees of GardaWorld are working as security contractors for the Government and the embassy. In Scotland, they are very well known to us; we know exactly who these people are and we know a lot about them. Presumably, given what they were doing, we must be very sanguine about their attitude towards security. Why were these people excluded from the ARAP scheme in the first place? Why does the British Council now tell us that it was allowed to put only employees through the ARAP scheme and not the contractors? Why is it only now that we recognise that we should fulfil our obligation not only to them but to their families, to the extent of 1,500 people? Why do we not just include them in the ARAP scheme and give them the flexibility that everyone else has, rather than putting these people—a lot of whom, as we know, are living in daily fear of their lives—through this short window of opportunity to get registered for resettlement and, we hope, to get back to security with us?

My Lords, first, as the noble Lord is aware, there are two different schemes: the ARAP scheme has its eligibility criteria and the ACRS—which is now open as this particular pathway—has its own criteria. I know of individual cases of people being considered for the ARAP scheme but not being accepted on to it. However, there have been opportunities, as we have seen in certain cases, allowing others then to go through the ACRS process.

On the small window of opportunity that the noble Lord asked about, there is a cap on the number we will be taking in year one which is both manageable and, I think, consistent with the announcements we have made previously. Equally, this is only year one; other pathways are also open to those seeking settlement, including Pathway 2, on which we are working very closely with the UNHCR. There are those people, including those from the cohorts we have discussed, who will be in neighbouring countries. We are working very closely with the UNHCR on that pathway as well. Therefore, ARAP, ACRS, Pathway 2 and, indeed, ACRS Pathway 3 are different routes, which enable people to go through a process which would allow for their resettlement in the United Kingdom.